2013 MTNA Conference – Sunday Late Morning – Elementary Piano Technique by Nancy Bachus

Nancy Bachus began her presentation with a performance of “Exultation” by Henry Cowell.

What is technique? Complete Command. Think, and it happens. Technique can be broken into three primary areas:

1. Tone.
2. Keyboard patterns.
3. Touches.

Tone Production
1. Gravity – (Weight) “Falling” (as opposed to pressing)

How to achieve:
a. Elephant trunks.
b. Relax forearm on table.
c. “Fall” in lap.
d. “Fall” on loose fist on keyboard.

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Sometimes there is too much emphasis on relaxation in playing. Arthur Schnabel advocates that the most important thing for a pianist is to have a firm nail-joint.
How to achieve a firm “nail-joint”?
1. “Knock” to get heavy “nail-joints”
2. Fingers flat on keyboard
3. Hang finger on edge of keyboard
4. Shake weight, from wrist, then elbow, then shoulder

How to develop a good arch of the hand? Have the student fall onto finger three on the piano, then rock back and forth between fingers 1 and 5. Nancy shared that contrary to popular belief, the fifth finger can be the strongest because it has its own set of muscles. This can be seen by holding your hand palm up and pointing the fifth finger toward the ceiling.

Basic Keyboard Patterns
90% of literature uses 6 basic patterns:
1. Scales
2. Chords
3. Arpeggios
4. Double Notes
5. Trills/Ornaments
6. Octaves

To be practiced in all major and minor keys. Practice these every day and then you can pull them out of your “bag” of prepared technique. She encourages having elementary students play 5-finger scales in three doubling rhythms (half notes, then quarter notes, then eighth notes). William Mason said, “If young students play slowly too fast, they will never learn to play fast.”

Nancy shared an anecdote that Franz Liszt thought that the 2-note slur was the most important of all techniques. She teaches the release first with her students. Use these words, “fall – feel the fingertip – pull forward.” She believes that the wrist does not lead, but follows the finger. Seymour Fink said that the second note is still melodic, and that most students tend to play it too short. This teaches students to play multiple notes on one gesture. This is the only way that they will ever be able to play fast.

“Students must be educated to beauty.” Play for them so that they can hear what the piano is capable of. Piano keys are levers, so if you want to have more volume you just have to increase the leverage you are using to play the key.

Nancy displayed and played several early level pieces to demonstrate the necessity of incorporating all of these technique elements into even simple repertoire pieces.

Establishing Patterns
How the Brain Learns
– All repetitive muscular motions become automatic – cerebullum takes over. Speed comes from the cerebellum. (Mind, Muscle, and Music by Dr. Frank Wilson, M.D. – who became interested in how the brain works by observing his daughter’s piano lessons)

“The object and inevitable result of practice IS the establishment of the habit of playing a certain thing in a certain way.” Madame Olga Samaroff

Nancy addressed the two approaches to technique:
1. Technique is learned through the repertoire.
2. Technique is studied separately.

“Technique is what we bring to the repertoire.” ~Nancy Bachus

If you can’t play the individual technical elements correctly, you will not be able to play the repertoire well. She handed out a sheet with an outline of the Daily Warm-Up Routine that she uses with students.

“We all reach a certain level of playing by ‘doing what comes naturally.'” Gyorgy Sandor – The level of talent determines whether you hit your limit sooner or later, so you must know HOW to practice intelligently.

In a nutshell: Be intentional in using technique exercises and patterns to help students establish beautiful playing skills that they can bring to their music.

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